Survey sheds light on why educators fear a future without net neutrality


The decision last week by the Federal Communications Commission to repeal Obama-era net neutrality protections raised immediate concerns among educators about the impact the decision could have on schools and libraries, especially those in low-income and rural areas.

Now, data from a new survey — released on the eve of that momentous net neutrality decision — is shedding light on the impending collision between the 118,000 schools and libraries that depend on E-rate funding for affordable broadband services and the freedom that internet service providers (ISPs) will have to create “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for content depending on its value.

The survey, produced by Funds for Learning, an Oklahoma-based education and E-rate consulting organization, shows that the schools and libraries that depend on E-rate subsidies expect their demand for broadband services to increase significantly at the same time ISPs may begin favoring commercial, revenue-generating content and websites.

The demand for more bandwidth at educational institutions continues to grow, according to the 2017 E-Rate Trends Report, with $2.5 billion in E-rate requests for data & internet services — more than half of the $4.9 billion in services supported by the program annually.

More important, nearly a third of the survey respondents told Funds for Learning they expect an increase of 50 percent in their bandwidth usage over the next three years, and 15 percent of survey respondents said they are expecting their bandwidth usage to double during the same time period.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they believe that insufficient off-campus internet access for students or libraries is a significant issue in their community.

“Ironically, the limit to this growth in connectivity may be what is happening off campus,” said Funds for Learning President Cathy Cruzan.

“Millions of homes are impacted by the students’ lack of connectivity when they leave campus. They’re unable to complete digital homework assignments when they leave the campus, and that’s become problematic,” she said. “As we look to the future of internet access, it may be students’ off-campus connectivity that defines the learning that takes place on campus.”

Established by an act of Congress in 1996, the E-rate program relies on fees on consumers’ telephone bills to raise billions of dollars each year to help subsidize the cost of internet access, telecommunications and computer networking at nearly every school and library in the nation. More than 23,000 applicants and 4,900 vendors currently participate in the program.

A recent article by Joseph South, the chief learning officer at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and Eden Dahlstrom, the executive director of the New Media Consortium, highlighted the underlying concerns that many educators have about the FCC’s net neutrality vote and its potential impact on E-rate participants.

“The internet, and interactions with internet-connected devices and applications, is part of the daily life of millions of college administrators, faculty and staff members and students,” they wrote in a commentary published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. “Tiered pricing of internet access based on content … could limit [a student’s] access to education and perpetuate her disadvantaged status.”

Although the FCC’s decision has garnered a lot of attention in education circles, one of the key issues that has not yet been discussed in detail is the impact the decision could have on the bottom line for schools and libraries. And that could be a problem for the future of the E-rate program, which has come under the budget scrutiny of the new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

In a statement issued after the FCC’s ruling, Keith Krueger, the CEO of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), said the FCC vote could lead to higher costs for schools if they’re required to pay extra for certain online services.

“Absent the net neutrality guardrails, school systems will now face a bleak reality: reduced choices, higher prices and fewer innovative tools,” Krueger said.

Since coming into office, Pai has issued ambiguous public statements about his commitment to continued funding for the E-rate program. Shortly after taking over at FCC, Pai rescinded the FCC’s own report documenting the success of the E-rate program, stating it would have “no legal or other effect or meaning going forward.”